Welcome to July. Hope our readers in the Pacific Northwest survived the unnatural heat wave earlier this week. For those not in the region it was miserable – three days of record breaking heat, topping out at 108-degrees (42-degrees Celsius) on Monday. The last time Seattle broke 100-degrees was in 2009 and that was for one day – not three consecutive days. Just south of Seattle in Portland, OR it got even hotter.
I don’t study nor track environmental issues closely. The events of the week forced me to think more about environmental racism and the impact of these catastrophic events on our Black and Brown communities.
Why this Matters to People of Color
Climate change and natural disasters impact communities differently. Some can get through crises with less negative impact than others. As a friend reminded me just being Black, Brown, or POC doesn’t mean you’re at a higher risk – racism, lack of financial resources, limited access to networks, etc. makes the risk greater.
Environmental racism and environmental injustice demonstrates the systems, practices, and policies that discriminate against people of color. This shows up in who had access to staying home and staying cool over the last few days, who is exposed to lead in the water (think of Flint, MI), many Indigenous communities were driven from their traditional lands to substandard parcels of land and forced to live, and in very modern terms – who could escape (e.g. drive or fly) to escape heat caused by climate change. While we all feel the impact of climate change some will feel it more acutely more quickly.
We’re All Exhausted
Earlier today while taking a long walk, one of the first I’ve been able to do since the heatwave, I listened to an NPR story interviewing Portland, Oregon’s public health officer. She talked about how Portland, OR dealt with the heatwave, but what stood out to me is when she said the rapid succession of disasters their city has had to deal with – wildfires and unhealthy smoky air, record ice storms, and now record heat in addition to dealing with COVID19 a very present danger.
While as cities and regions we are learning and getting smarter about how to deal with these disasters, it also means government is responding (as it should) but it takes away from investing in other things and moving poc communities forward. I also wonder and hope we don’t reach the point where people are so exhausted, we get complacent and resentful – especially resentful to who needs help with is often our Black and Brown communities.
We need to remember while climate events are inevitable, these are unnatural in their magnitude. We need government to respond AND to implement climate change policies that get us to carbon zero and reverse the harmful impacts of greenhouse gases. Many communities of color need and deserve stronger environmental protection legislation to keep cultures alive and thriving. As a small example in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay’s (a popular snorkeling spot) water cleared up during the COVID shutdowns. The City raised the price for admission for non-residents to $25 per person (Hawaii residents are free). The bay and the sea life in it deserve to heal, restore, and to be protected. Hopefully the COVID break will reset our baseline and remind us our prior normal, wasn’t normal – we can and should do better. These small acts are important and add up, but we also need massive shifts in our energy policies and to push for carbon zero polices rooted in environmental justice.
On the human side, our nonprofits also need to start preparing more. On Sunday, I checked in with a few other Executive Directors of color to see what they were thinking. One friend who works in the housing sector said she declared the workday an adverse weather event (similar to a snowstorm) which allowed most staff to work from home or not work, and for the direct service staff that had to show up were entitled to double their pay. As a nonprofit and education sector we need to innovate and encourage our funders to think about how we engage more with climate change and environmental justice – how we build our buildings, how we transport our clients or students, purchasing decisions, etc. The racial justice needs to intersect with environmental justice (and educational justice for my education folx).
A friend reminded me that even though American society is steeped in democratic values, the land itself doesn’t get a vote. In some places this is starting to change, where people are thinking about environmental impact more, but overall the land and animals do not have a direct say in their future. For Native communities and many communities of color our ties to place are important, and those places deserve environmental justice.
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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.